Overview of Asian conflicts
Since the end of the Second World War, New Zealand has been involved in a series of Asian conflicts, in Korea, Malaya (and later Malaysia), Vietnam, East Timor, Kuwait and Afghanistan. In contrast to the world wars, these conflicts have not led to many deaths – less than 100 in total. Nor have they demanded a large effort from those at home. The Vietnam War did, however, lead to division and controversy within the community on an unprecedented scale.
Except for Kuwait and Afghanistan, these wars were produced by Cold War antagonism or decolonisation – or a lethal combination of both. These primary influences had roots in the Second World War.
Onset of the Cold War
The dominating feature of the world political system in the 50 years after 1945 was the Cold War. This was the confrontation that developed in the late 1940s between the Soviet Union, led by dictator Joseph Stalin, and its former Western allies. Long-standing animosity fuelled suspicions of motives on both sides. Many in the West viewed the Soviet Union as a threat similar to that posed by Nazi Germany, a perception seemingly confirmed by events, especially in Greece (where the US shored up the Greek government against a communist insurgency) and Czechoslovakia (where the Soviets replaced the elected government with a communist regime). Stalin seemed to be embarked on an aggressive crusade, backed by the vast Red Army in Europe and by communist parties throughout the world which owed allegiance to Moscow.
By 1948 the Cold War lines had firmed. Two blocs, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, confronted each other across a divided Europe, and increasingly elsewhere. The division confirmed New Zealand’s fears that the United Nations, formed in 1945, could not be relied upon for security. In particular the veto enjoyed by the great powers – Britain, the US, France, the USSR and China – in the Security Council seemed to render it impotent in a series of crises.
New Zealand response
New Zealand fully supported the Western response to the perceived Soviet threat, pledging to send forces to defend the Suez Canal if war broke out. In order to have enough troops ready, New Zealand needed a trained territorial force of citizen soldiers. Prime Minister Peter Fraser believed this could only be achieved through compulsory military training (CMT). In 1949 he called a referendum on the issue and the public voted strongly in favour of CMT. Fraser’s own Labour Party, however, was bitterly divided over the issue, which may have contributed to its defeat in the 1949 general election.
Following the Chinese communist victory in 1949, the remnants of the nationalist government, the anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT), fled to Taiwan. Generalissimo Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), the KMT leader, declared that the KMT remained the legitimate Chinese government. Taiwan held China’s seats at the United Nations and on the UN Security Council until 1971, when they were transferred to the Beijing regime. From 1949 New Zealand followed Australia and the US in recognising the Taiwan regime as the government of all China. In 1972 the newly elected Labour government broke with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic.
A rising challenge
Fears that the Soviets were gaining ground in the Cold War mounted in 1949. A Soviet atom-bomb test in August ended the West’s short-lived nuclear monopoly. On 1 October Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) proclaimed the People’s Republic of China following the communists’ triumph in the Chinese civil war. The eruption of a series of communist insurgencies in South-East Asia, seemingly directed by Moscow, further heightened tension in Western capitals.
Decolonisation transformed the international system in the four decades after 1945. The vast empires of the western European powers disappeared, replaced by a myriad of new states. The defeat of the ‘white’ imperial powers by the ‘coloured’ nation of Japan in 1942 had been a major blow to the prestige of the empires, encouraging anti-colonial activism.
The British recognised the writing on the wall almost immediately after the Second World War, freeing India and Pakistan in 1947 along with Burma (later Myanmar) and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka). Malaya (later Malaysia) followed in the 1950s and most British possessions in Africa in the 1960s. The Dutch and French resisted the tide, attempting to regain their pre-war possessions by force. Although the Dutch soon gave up, the French persisted in Indochina, fighting a bitter war with nationalist Vietnamese between 1946 and 1954. Since these nationalists were also communists, the US (and New Zealand) supported the French, mainly because of Cold War influences.